In recognition of World Alzheimer’s Month, every September, as well as World Alzheimer Day, September 21st, I would like to highlight a special person who helped me in my journey as a musician. Also, I would like to recognize the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund (Curealz.org) organization which is researching a cure for Alzheimer’s. A great thing about this non-profit is they allow 100% of donations to go directly to research while the founders and board members cover all of the operating costs and expenses of the organization.
Most of us have dealt with family members and friends having Alzheimer’s but normally it occurs later in life. When people begin to get symptoms as early in their 40’s and 50’s, this form of the disease is known as early-onset Alzheimer. This is very uncommon and it’s estimated that less than 200,000 people in the United States are affected by early-onset Alzheimer versus roughly the four million American’s who suffer from Alzheimer’s after age 65.
During the planning and fundraising stages for a humanitarian project I helped organize called Sembrando Semillas, I was doing outreach to my network of friends and family and was shocked to discover that my music professor from La Salle University, Dr. Susan McDonald retired in her early 50’s because of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Learning this stopped me in my tracks and I started reflecting on the experiences from La Salle thinking about how Dr. McDonald was such an intellectual person who was a great composer and songwriter and such a caring teacher and how confusing and unfortunate it is that this happened to her at a young age. Speaking with her husband, we agreed that I would detail some of my college experiences from working with Dr. McDonald to share with the donors and friends of my recent humanitarian program to help raise money for the Alzheimer’s cause.
In the year 2000, I considered attending Berklee College of Music in Boston by staying on campus for a summer program to see how I would like the school. Although I was highly passionate about working in the music business in some capacity, especially as a producer, I decided to attend La Salle University to study business administration. I thought I had enough music skill and simply just needed to apply it to a business model, therefore, going to the business school at La Salle would suit me well. While attending school, I still had an urge to take music classes and therefore my electives were aimed at taking the very few music classes La Salle offered at the time. There were only a few teachers in the music department and one who I became acquainted with, Dr. Susan McDonald, was the teacher of a digital-audio and computer music composition class and I took both. Both classes were very cutting edge as Dr. McDonald was always using the latest technology and ideas to apply to the curriculum.
One of the main things I realized in her classes is although I had a good sense of music and what it meant to me, I had a tough time putting it into words on paper. We did many projects, presentations, and exercises where we had to discuss and describe music in various ways. Many of the projects helped me learn terminology and descriptive measures to speak the language of music better. One assignment I remember was comparing CD quality music versus MP3 quality music and describing the differences of what we were hearing; another was drawing on paper what we visually saw when listening to different types of music which were very different from using descriptive language. Also, I remember an open class discussion we debated what a “hook” was, I remember thinking I knew exactly what a hook was always part of the chorus of a song, however after the debate, it dawned on me that a “hook” does not specifically have to occur during a chorus, that catchy riff or melody that grabs a listener can actually occur anywhere in the song. Many of the projects Dr. McDonald had us do helped me expand my knowledge and understanding of music.
Dr. McDonald was very good at listening and critiquing music that we composed for her classes. I remember she pointed out that some of my musical ideas I would blend in with others almost to the point where they were hidden. She recommended that I make every layer stand out in its own unique way. This advice made me realize that I was indeed not fully expressing my music abilities to the fullest. Later, this would change how I approached composing. Presenting and discussing music in front of the class also helped me gain confidence in my abilities. She also encouraged me to express music by using my hands, much like how a conductor does to an orchestra. Before taking her classes I thought I knew everything about MIDI (a type of technology to connect musical devices together) but I learned how much more complex and useful it really is.
During college, I was aggressively pursuing opportunities in the music world by working as a tracking and mixing audio engineer at night, composing and also operating an e-commerce website to facilitate transactions of original music to recording artists. In 2003, I had the experience of working as an engineer and music programmer for a music producer named Gregory Christopher and singer/songwriter Jazmine Sullivan; one of the recordings got the attention of music industry producer’s Tommy Matolla and Cory Rooney who ended up buying the record for it to be a lead single for one of their new artists. I got to travel to New York to be involved with this experience which I will never forget. I remember when the CD was commercially released in 2004, Dr. McDonald was one of the first people I was excited to share the news with. Like always, you could go to her office during advising hours for mentorship and conversation, and I remember going there to deliver her a newly released CD I bought in Best Buy and telling her I had something to do with it. She was very proud to see my dreams start to come true and motivated me to keep going; she told me that while she was getting her degrees, she too was highly motivated and was writing many songs during her study time. During my senior year, she had a music competition for La Salle students that featured everyone’s work in the school’s planetarium; although I did not place she gave me an honorable mention in the program notes.
After school, we kept in touch via e-mail and she helped me connect with her husband for ideas on how to get a CD duplicated for a project I worked on. She invited me to be a guest speaker in one of her classes, but after school I decided to take a job in advertising and felt uncomfortable that I was not doing what I desired or what I would be talking about so I remember telling her I would come back later when I got my career directed more into the music world. Looking back, I wish I would have gone to speak at her class.
One creative aspect Dr. McDonald pointed out about my music was that I seemed to have a talent for percussion or rhythmic instruments and encouraged me to continue exploring this. In 2012, through a mutual friend, I worked with a talented percussionist from Columbia named Fernando Valencia and recorded a variety of percussion works. It was a great way to expand my interest in percussion by working first hand with Fernando. Ironically, those recordings led me to get involved in humanitarian work bringing supplies to Cuban musicians in both 2015 and 2017. It also led me back me back to learning about Dr. McDonald and her forced early retirement due to early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Dr. McDonald currently now lives at her home near Hershey, Pennsylvania with her husband Steve who had to retire himself to take care of her each day as she forgets how to do many basic things including using a television remote, etc. Her husband thinks that the progress of the disease has faced many obstacles since Dr. McDonald is an intellectual and an advanced music composer, therefore, she is hanging in there longer by reading and taking music lessons.
If you could find it in your heart, and budget, to make a charitable contribution to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund (Cureal.org), that will help advance the study of this disease to ultimately find a cure! Any donation of any size is much appreciated. Please feel free to contact me or the fund!
Thanks, Dr. M. for helping me expand my music knowledge and for all of your inspiration. I hope to pass it along to other as life moves on.
All the very best,